In so many ways, the last thirty years have gone undigested. Aside from the Iron Curtain and the Internet--a huge aside, to be sure--what has been done about the human condition compared to the time between 1952 and 1982? 1982 witnessed the first mass-culture inklings of networked computers and video cameras, so it may well be a fitting place to start.
There may be an argument to be made that China is the new USSR, but that we’ve decided to put massive amounts of trade and debt between our countries instead of military spending only. There may be an argument to be made that under unfathomable amounts of hype, the Internet is a replacement for print and broadcast media--albeit without (much) censorship or central control--and is slowly returning to the contours of advertising-laden one-way media. The Internet is a boon for corporations who are basically now able to get consumers to pay to write advertising copy for them, though I’m sure they preferred having the ability to control the message.
I grew up in what I would argue were the latter days of modernity. It postulated things about the human condition and what could be done to better it. The standardization, systems and centralization of our day were slow to take hold. I remember the roughly mile-long stretch of Silver Spring Drive east of I-43 having at least five gas stations, six if you count the 76 station just north on Port Washington. They would have a few pumps each and a garage that was devoted to car repair. The shabby office counter might have had some unappetizing machine for heating up industrial-looking chicken sandwiches or some such. I haven’t the foggiest idea why there were so many seemingly identical service stations in such a small area. I suppose more Detroit cars were being driven back then and they needed more maintenance. Full service was the only option, as I’m sure my frugal Mom began pumping her own gas as soon as that option became available.
It wasn’t until 1989 that the first convenience store, Kaul Mart, arrived in my neighborhood. It seemed odd to me for a gas station to have a store attached, especially one that sold gargantuan soda cups. After all, we already had stores aplenty and an entire main drag lined with fast food restaurants. Around the same time, the M&I branch at the end of Navajo became drive-thru only after one or more robberies. (Incidentally, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen either of my parents use an ATM card--and in trying to recall when I started, it may have been as late as 1997).
I mention these apparently tangential things because they’re evidence of our drift from an “us” society to a “me” society. In my estimation, there has been a fair amount of good in that, but perhaps more ill. It’s been a comfortable change for me as an introvert and a loner; I feel almost mainstream now. However, I feel that as I near 40, too much of my life has been wasted in a society that is not cohesive, if it ever was in our lifetimes. And too much about our environment is simply nonsensical and would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.
Seemingly everyone in the Milwaukee area drives either a nondescript four-door sedan or a nondescript SUV, yet everyone feels compelled to have their car alarm confirm its armed state with a loud honk or beep. I’ve had my car for ten years and four months, it has been broken into precisely once, at least that I know of. For a year or so early on, I drove around with a conspicuous fireproof SAFE in the back seat--even when I lived in a poorer neighborhood--and still never got broken into! This, after a friend warned me that the Toyota Corolla was the most frequently stolen car and would soon be on its way to Mexico.
Car alarms are innocuous enough, but someone could do an interesting study of the psychology behind them. Most likely, they’re an outgrowth of the same technological advances that spelled fewer service stations, just more clearly overkill. Even though we ate at home most days, I remember everyday life featuring a wide variety of social interactions. My Mom drove everywhere when I was little--she’d drive two blocks to Kohl’s for groceries (ugh) and four blocks to the bank before they built the drive-thru (Ugh!), but the effect of those small social interactions is not to be underestimated. Routine errands being replaced by ATM use and convenience store food and drink purchases--inevitably while taking on a cell phone, it seems--are a loss of social capital.
I think there’s immense value in an expectation that people exercise good manners in even these seemingly petty transactions. I’ve always said “please” and “thank you”, and it grates on me when people don’t. The moral, it seems to me, is that society needs a certain baseline of behavior regardless of our mood or psychological state--and I think it’s healthy for that expectation to be promoted. It would be good to bring back some good old-fashioned opprobrium for the cell-phone talkers, and indeed, that increasingly is happening.